MPR's Public Insight Network guru Melody Ng is back in China on vacation and has just provided some pictures and commentary on life around Beijing.
"This is the first time I've been able to get online. It sounds ridiculous considering what a developed city Beijing is, but it's been difficult getting Internet access. The two apts we've lived in haven't had Internet, even though they were supposed to (and we left one for the other to try to get Internet)."
Her fascinating diary is below the fold.
How satisfied are you with the police officer who checked your passport at the Beijing Airport? There's a machine at the counter for you to enter your evaluation. We need to get this system in place in the U.S. Just imagine how great service would be if we could push a single button to rate how well the person at Home Depot, Cub Foods and the public library did at helping us out.
People still cutting in line at the airport. I used to think it was the younger people in China who were ruder -- less versed in the Confucian ideals, inclusing what we consider polite behavior. But now I'm thinking that in new China, young people have been indoctrinated with lessons on good manners, and it's the middle-aged who are still pushing and shoving to get what they want.
8-10-08 Flight from Narita/Tokyo to Beijing. Already observing Olympic color. Many fellow passengers are obviously also heading to Beijing for the Olympics. There's a contingent supporting Greco-Roman wrestler Jake Deitchler. They're all wearing identical t-shirts with his photo captioned "Kid Dynamite." A man and a woman board the plane wearing t-shirts bearing a huge Chinese character in a contrasting color. My friend Jerome confirms that it's "Hu" - as in Hu Jintao's last name. So I wonder if they're cheering for some athlete who's named "Hu." Turns out the man is American swimmer Amanda Beard's father, and the "hu" is for "Beard." Amanda's boyfriend came up with the idea, looked up the Chinese character for "beard" on the Internet, and had the t-shirts printed up. But Amanda's dad and sister-in-law report that they've gotten all sorts of comments and questions about the shirts since they left LAX. People have provided them different interpretations of that same Chinese character, including "witchcraft." They're good humored about it, saying that's what you can expect from the Internet when you don't know Chinese. I think the shirts are creative and eye-catching. And even though that character can be interpreted in ways they weren't expecting, it's still accurate. It sure beats many other attempts at Chinese I've seen on western clothing and tattoos - miswritten, upside down, nonsensical... I later notice another member of their family, female, wearing a shirt that says: "I *heart* my beard." Love it.
8-10-08 PEK. ~9:00 p.m. I am so excited to be here - partly, I have to admit, because the somewhat dreaded 15-hour flight with my 21-month old is over, but mostly because I can't wait to see Beijing. I haven't been here since August 2004, and before that, when I lived in China from 1993 to 1995. I know China and Beijing have changed a lot; I was blown away when I returned here in 2004. But I'm curious about exactly what has changed.
The exit ramp is heavy with humidity. Check. That's just as expected for Beijing in mid August. It's been raining. The terminal we enter at the end of the exit ramp is cool, dimly lit - but like a fine restaurant, not a grungy stairwell - and surprisingly empty and quiet. The granite floors are polished, the ceiling, high and modern. We must be in the new terminal. A huge, red poster hangs on one wall: "One World One Dream," the Beijing Games' motto. Uniformed greeters stand along the passageway leading to the passport processing area, prepared to answer questions and offer help. When we enter the passport check area, we're directed to the lane for diplomats because we have a baby. There's no line. (I guess we had no diplomats on our flight.) This is one of my favorite things about traveling in Asia - the preference airport and government officials give to people with babies and young children. "Xiao pengyou," or "little friends," they're called. I got the same such special treatment each time I went through some security, passport or customs check when I took my then 6-week old to Hong Kong and Macau last year. No such good fortune when I had to deal with the same returning through LAX. Anyhow, I hadn't observed this behavior in China before. Perhaps something new.
Now I know the police officer who handled our passports was working the diplomat line, so maybe he's just the best guy on the team. But he was by far the most pleasant government official I've ever encountered in this sort of mass interaction in China. These guys often don't talk, don't respond to a polite greeting, and then just wave you through when they're finished with you. This guy smiled, and he even joked with us! I have no idea if this is part of the Olympics training: Smile at the foreigners visiting Beijing. I'll bet he's just a nice guy. But because of his friendliness, he did manage to add four more "highly satisfied"s to his score.
While we were standing there waiting for him to compare each of us to our passport photos, I noticed a small, blue machine attached to the counter in front of the policeman. (I would have taken a picture, but signs all over the room said photos weren't allowed.) It listed this policeman's ID number across the top, and bore four buttons reading "highly satisfied," "satisfied," "dissatisfied" and "highly dissatisfied." Each time he processed a passport, the lights on the buttons would flash and you could push a button to rate him. One vote per passport only. I don't know how many people actually vote. My brother and cousin who flew in the next day said they didn't vote. One of them said he didn't notice the machine, and the other said he didn't understand what it was for. But I'd imagine if many voted, that it would be a pretty effective way to get people to be more service oriented, especially if their scores affected their pay or performance reviews. I think it'd work better than those surveys stores are always pushing on their receipts nowadays where you can call in, answer a few questions about your shopping experience, and be entered to win a $100 or $500 gift card - and the semitrucks that ask "How is my driving?" What would the world be like if we all walked around with a "Rate me" machine hanging from our necks?
8-10-08 PEK Taxi queue. ~ 10:15 p.m. The line's long. The taxi's are a bit slow in arriving. I'm reminded where I am when several 50-something, Chinese-looking people who had been standing one or two parties behind us suddenly push in front of us and cut in line. My husband starts complaining loudly in English about how Chinese people never stand in line, and what makes these people think they can just jump ahead of all of us. I stared at them. One man looks back smugly. I immediately start thinking mean thoughts at him. One of the women sees my glare, appears a bit embarrassed, but shrugs. The others act oblivious. Now I really wish people walked around with rating systems tied to their necks, and I wish I had the guts to confront them. But I decide it's not worth getting upset about. This is China after all. When I lived here, strangers would grab onto each others shoulders when standing in line for train tickets forming station-long chains, because they knew if they let go of the person ahead of them, someone else might jump into the line. During busy travel times, train station officials sometimes walked around with electric cattle prods which they'd poke people with if they tried to cut. And I've had to elbow soldiers and stomp on their toes to try to prevent them from cutting in front of me (What soldiers do you know who cut in line while wearing their uniforms??!) so I could get out of a city that I had been stuck in for three days of standing in line for lack of available train tickets. The crazy thing though is that after a few minutes the smug man and his female companion walked to the very front of the line, bypassing maybe 30 other people who had been standing in front of them, and prepared to climb into the next cab. One of the other women who had cut in front of us went up to the airport people directing the taxi line and started protesting that these people hadn't stood in line, that they were cutting and ought to be stopped. She then started yelling at them in very loud Chinese. The smug man continued to smile and responded that he didn't understand that one couldn't do this. (He didn't understand when there are 30-some people in front of him in line and a wait of over 40 minutes to get a cab that he's not supposed to walk up to the front and claim one???) His wife is smiling, too. I can't decide if she's doing the typical embarrassed Chinese thing - they often smile when embarrassed - or if she's genuinely pleased with themselves for having thought of a way to get ahead of all of us. The taxi official, half listening to the complaining woman, blocks the smiley couple for few cabs, but eventually lets them into one - quite a few cars ahead of ours. That's another Chinese thing that maybe hasn't changed despite the Olympics and all the "new" rules for proper behavior: pushing and cutting usually gets you what you want. But I still need to test this hypothesis more. I have only this sample size of one so far.
8-10-08 Taxi. ~11:00 p.m. When we get into the cab, it plays a prerecorded message in perfect English welcoming us to Beijing. Our cab driver, a native Beijinger, in his forties, and not an English speaker, says he likes the changes the Olympics have brought to his city. He shares his cab with another driver, and he says on his shift (7:30 p.m. to 7:30 a.m.), he's making much more money during the Olympics. Plus, there's less traffic with 30 plus percent fewer cars on the road on any given day, and many roads which used to be near impossible to get through, are now widened. Making his job much easier. We drive under the rail line for the new airport express train/subway line, which was just completed in late July. Twenty-five yuan (a little more than $3.50) will whisk you in crisp air-conditioning and glass from the airport to Beijing's 2nd Ring Road where you can pay two yuan (about $0.30) to transfer to a bus or another subway line to get you anywhere you'd like in the city. Of course, at 94 yuan for our 30-minute cab ride to Xizhimen on the northwest side of town, we still got a decent deal. Less than $14 for our party of three (and no tips required in China).
8-10-08 Apartment complex near Xizhimen. ~11:30 p.m. We're staying in a typical Chinese apartment complex, the kind that usually is owned by one's work unit (e.g., school or factory), and in which apartments are assigned to workers and their families. It looks a lot like my aunt's place in Xi'an: 24/7 guard at gate; identical, multistoried, cement buildings surrounding a cemented-over, central common area with some plantings in which residents stroll with dogs and kids chase each other by bike in the evenings; showing its age, but with a strong sense of community, because in the past, the same people lived in those apartments for their entire working lives. Our stairway (Building No. 7, Doorway No. 1) is dark (though the light on most landings turns on whenever someone claps or stomps loudly - sound controlled) and grimy - as I expected - and we carry our luggage and our child up to the sixth floor. Whew. But this and bicycles is why Chinese people stay in such good shape.
Thank goodness the air-conditioning works well. The floors are covered in some sort of wood laminate rather than being unfinished cement, and the walls and ceiling have obviously been eth focus of some redecoration work as well. But we're given a hot pot to boil our water in; the pillows on our bed are covered by bamboo mats; and our shower head is stuck to the wall in the same tiny, tiled room as the toilet (western - not squat) with no dividers or rim on the floor to keep the shower water from flowing out over the entire floor. A typical Chinese residence. It belongs to the friend of a friend of my brother's friend's friend's mother. They have a bigger home now, and they rent out this place. We're told not to tell anyone in the complex that we're Americans. I should say I'm Cantonese. We forget to ask if it's better for Joseph to say he's Taiwanese or if he should pretend that he's from southern China, too. I can't figure out if it's illegal for people to rent out apartments they don't own for the Olympics. Before coming here, I spent a couple months trawling Craigslist Beijing looking for apartments for rent (there are tons, and prices dropped significantly in the couple weeks before the Games began). Many Beijingers were hoping to make some money on their places of residence. Do apartment building owners mind not getting their cut?
So much for public squares being open to the people... Bag check and security lines to enter Tiananmen Sq. Plenty of soldiers marching in the square and in the blocks around it. But they don't seem quite as intimidating because they're surrounded by people young and old posing for pictures, carrying Chinese and Olympic flags, red Olympics ribbons tied around their heads and arms, and small, red Chinese flags stuck to their cheeks.
8-11-08 Alleyway in Xizhimen. I'm delighted to have found a little street of simple food just a couple blocks from our apartment. We pick up a basket of steamed pork buns and a fried bread stick for about $0.75, and they pour some gingery vinegar into a plastic bag for me so we can take the buns to go. (Joseph doesn't want to eat inside the shop because it's so hot and steamy in there.) We hit another shop for steaming soybean milk. As we walk through this area, I hear a man cough up phlegm and watch him spit onto the sidewalk. I also see a toddler clad in split pants (Babies through kindergarteners used to all wear this sort of garment. The seam of the crotch is left unsewn, so children can urinate and defecate without removing the pants. It's especially cute in winter when parents dress their kids in layers and you can see a tiny, bare butt poking out from within the folds of multiple, thick layers of pants.). He squats and poops onto the sidewalk in front of his family's home as his mother sweeps at the front gate. I guess all those new behavior laws didn't make it all the way to this side of town, far from where most foreign visitors would wander. We see little Olympic fervor over here. The green and white banners with the Olympic logo bedeck the lampposts along the major road, and groups of two to three senior citizens sit out on most every block in their blue and white Olympics volunteer shirts (more on this later). But really low key compared to the touristy areas of Beijing. In 2.5 hours of wandering I see only one person who is obviously not Chinese in the neighborhood. (He was eating at the local McDonald's.)
8-11-08 Tiananmen Square. It seems so odd to have to go through a security line complete with x-ray scanning of all bags to gain entrance to the supposedly largest public square in the world. I mean, isn't the point of a public square - that it be open and free to everyone? Hundreds of tourists, Chinese and foreign, are on the square. Many are posing for photos in front of various Olympic-themed displays, 3-D sculptural and covered in plants with various leaf and flower colors. Chinese parents are tying red ribbons cheering on the Olympics around their kids' heads and arms. People walk around carrying pairs of flags - the red Chinese flag and the white Olympics flag - which they buy for 1.5 yuan a pair from the many vendors who are also hawking Chinese flag stickers (some in the shape of a heart), tattoos, buttons, and cheap plastic replicas of the Olympics torch. I see the cutest (really!) wizened old man. He's got closely shaven gray to white hair, and skin that looks like he's spent decades under the sun working the soil. He's shuffling along with who appears to be his granddaughter and daughter, and he's got a Chinese heart flag stuck to his cheek, and he's carrying a pair of flags. I wanted to snap a photo, but I couldn't get my camera up fast enough. People crowd around the flag pole at the north end of Tiananmen Square. It's near sunset, and they're waiting for the flag lowering ceremony. Three black men, one large with long braids, who are wearing Olympics jerseys and laminated ID badges indicating they're from Cuba, have been standing in the area for a few minutes. I turn and see that the larger man has a Chinese child on his shoulders. The kid's mom (perhaps?) and another Chinese kid stand between the large Cuban and his companions. Everyone has their fingers up in a victory sign, and several Chinese people are snapping photos. I wonder who asked for the photo op. When I lived in China, foreigners would get asked to be in photos with Chinese people. But I thought those days were long past - especially in Beijing, cosmopolitan city that it is.
Later, while waiting for the subway, I watch a Chinese woman openly gawking - I mean, majorly staring - at three African women wearing head coverings, and decide that non-Chinese-looking people, despite their significant numbers here, still stand out in this highly homogenous society, and that most Chinese people still have a lot of questions about them. Across the street from Tiananmen Square is a huge countdown clock for the Olympics, which now reads: 0000 days, 00 hours, 00 min, 00 sec. (see photo. When I was here in 1995, a similar countdown clock for the return of Hong Kong to China stood in that very spot.)
Do special shirts make volunteers do better work?
8-12-08 Wandering along Chang'an Ave. Olympic fervor is most apparent along the stretch of Chang-an Avenue (Beijing's main drag) between Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, and Wangfujing Shopping District, a popular area for Chinese and foreigners alike. Multistory banners with photos of China's Olympic stars hang outside buildings. Olympic banners and flags are everywhere, as are signs - both homemade and official - welcoming the Games. In any direction I look, I see high school and college student wearing the official blue and white Olympics volunteer jerseys with their coveted laminated, yellow and red Olympic ID badges. Some are busy (or not so busy) at work, standing in information booths, passing out maps or waiting for someone to ask for information, collecting well wishes for the Olympics that they post on message boards standing beside their booths, updating China's medal count on a white board, text messaging and chatting. Others must be off shift (though they continue to wear their volunteer jerseys, and I wonder if as a sign of status, they ever take them off during the 7 days of the Games), because they're wandering around in pairs and packs, snacking, goofing off with friends. Retirees are also wearing volunteer jerseys, though theirs are mostly white with some blue highlights. They, too, are ready to answer questions about directions, bicycle parking, and whatever else may come up. A Chinese friend tells me that one cannot buy these special Olympic jerseys that volunteers wear. I think about our MPR volunteers in the "MPR crew" t-shirts our Marketing Dept. has made for them, and wonder if we all take more pride in our work when we're wearing clothes that set us apart and mark us as belonging to some group. Even the street sweepers/trashcan emptiers in this part of town are wearing fancy, new uniforms - bright blue overalls - and those Olympic ID badges. So much to watch as I polish off three skewers of spicy, grilled whole squids. Wish we had these squid on a stick at the State Fair.
8-12 evening and 8-13 highlights:
Honest cab drivers (two thumbs up!)
An earnest and passionate college student who spends six months pedaling a 3-wheeled cart around China to collect his fellow countrymen's thoughts for the IOC.
A very proper college student volunteer. He just wants to contribute and help out his country with the Olympic Games.
8-12-08 Taxi. Mr. Cai has been driving a taxi for about six months now. Before this, he's done a hodgepodge of other jobs. He says he's lazy, and he's never liked doing anything that requires too much thinking. That may explain why he seemed bummed when he found out where we wanted to go - all the way over to the other side of town to a neighborhood that he wasn't familiar with. He had hoped, when he saw us standing on the street with our luggage, that we wanted to go to the nearby train station. It was about 7:30 p.m., and he figured we'd be his last fare for the day before he went home for supper. He's broadfaced and meatier than the average Chinese man with a short crew cut. Maybe in his forties. Friendly. He describes himself as open and genial, which makes cab driving a good fit for him. The Olympics hasn't really helped his business, he makes a little more, but not much. Of course, he admits that he avoids touristy places like clubs, and that he tries not to pick up foreigners (we looked Chinese to him) because it's a hassle to deal with language and communication barriers. He's glad that Beijing is hosting the Olympics, but he doesn't like the changes that have come as a result. He was born in Beijing, and he liked things the way they were before. He's not into modern - though I'm sure he appreciates being able to drive and not having to walk miles and miles in the heat of summer or cold of winter. And I'll bet, like everyone else in China, that he likes being able to watch the Games on his color TV.
We've taken a cab a few times since arriving in Beijing, and the drivers have all been very honest. We haven't known where we were going, and they easily could have taken us for a ride, as cab drivers in many countries have a rap for doing to foreigners. But everyone has turned on the meter and gone in what seems to me, with my rudimentary knowledge of the layout of the city, in as direct a route as possible. No one's pretended not to have change when we've paid at the end of the trip. And everyone's been very patient with our, "Turn right here. Oh, I mean, 'Turn left.' Or rather, I think we're actually over there straight ahead more..."
8-13-08 Olympic Green. We take one of the newly-opened subway lines (#10) up to the Olympic Green hoping to get in for a closer look at the Bird's Nest, Water Cube, and spectacular Olympic topiary gardens. It's a fairly long walk up the main thoroughfare from the subway station, because without Olympics tickets, we're not allowed onto the Olympic subway line that takes you right into the Green. Turns out that without a ticket for one of that day's events, we also aren't allowed into the Green. So we're stuck walking along the out of the guarded fence with hundreds of others (almost all Chinese), who likely had the same idea we did. Everyone stops for photos at the few spots along the fence where one can best glimpse the stadiums. I had thought we might be able to find ticket scalpers around here, too, but other than one man I see with a small sign bearing the Chinese character for ticket, "piao," and a question mark (so I can't tell if he's wishing to buy or sell) I see no one selling anything other than the usual unofficial tchochtke - red ribbons, pairs of flags, stickers and buttons - and an occasional t-shirt or keychain.
We meet a college student with a rundown three-wheeled cart. He's standing outside the fence near the Bird's Nest. Notebooks are clipped to the outside of heavy plastic that covers the cart, each carefully dated. He's got a few faded photos of him and his bike, and a letter written by another college student describing what's he's been doing posted as well. Liu Guoyong is a passionate guy, and a patriot. His parents perhaps predicted this when they named him. The characters "guo" and "yong" mean "country" and "forever." So his name is something to the effect of "May our country live forever." He feels like the Olympics being in China is a once in a lifetime opportunity, something very special. So he took off from school and decided to pedal this three-wheeled cart for six months through seven provinces, from the south of China where he's from, through Guangdong, Hainan, Guangxi, Hunan, Hubei, Henan and Hebei, to Beijing in time for the Olympics. Along the way, he's asked people to write in his notebooks. He tells them he's collecting their well wishes for the Olympics and other thoughts for the IOC, and he plans to send all of his notebooks to the IOC at the end of the Games. To that end, he tells each signer to include his or her full name, and he writes in the date and location after each entry. Liu Guoyong is living very frugally off money that his parents send him every once in a while when he calls to tell them he's run out. He reports that almost everyone he's met over the past six months has been proud or excited about the Olympics, the most enthusiastic being residents of a town in southern Hebei Province, long known for their culture of valuing education. When I ask if he ever meets people who aren't happy about the Olympics, he says he has, but he thinks it's mostly because the Olympics have inconvenienced them somehow, such as tearing down their old homes or making it so they can't drive on certain days of the week. A crowd forms as he answers my questions, and I sense that he doesn't feel comfortable talking about this anymore.
8-13-08 Haier Demonstration Station outside the Olympic Green. We duck into this little air-conditioned showroom for a respite form the heat. Haier, the Chinese maker of appliances, one of the sponsors of the Games has set this place up to showcase some of its newest and prototype machines. We're all impressed with the all-in-one washer-dryer unit (standing beside a gold-plated refrigerator), and ask if we can buy it in the States. The woman we ask, when she realizes that we're not Chinese, calls over a young guy in a pink and white Haier Olympic volunteer jersey. He greets us in English, and says it will be available worldwide in October. Dai Jun is from Jiangsu Province, not far from Shanghai, and he's here in Beijing attending a small university on the east side of town. Like many college students, he answered China's call for volunteers for the Olympics. He wanted to help out at the BOCOG (Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games - I think that's what they're called), but wasn't able to get a spot. Still, he did well enough in his interview to get called to help out Haier. He works at the demonstration center from 8:30 a.m. until 8 p.m. every day for the entire duration of the Games. We continue conversing in English, but break into Chinese whenever he doesn't understand what I'm saying. I ask if volunteers get a free ticket to one of the events, and he seems almost offended as he answers that the job of volunteers is to help out, not to benefit themselves, and that they're needed to work all the time. They don't have time for things like seeing events. Oops. His volunteer job seems way more demanding than those of the much more common blue and white volunteers, since often see them not working. I also ask if he likes the changes that have happened in Beijing to prepare for the Games. He says he does. I press him, asking if any of the new regulations make his life more inconvenient. He says he's too busy volunteering to notice or be much affected by them. I must look surprised by his response, because he then follows that since he's working now, this is not a good time to talk about these things. I then notice another guy in pink and white standing a little ways behind us listening in. Turns out he speaks quite fluent English and isn't a volunteer; he works for Haier. Double oops. As we go, I hope I didn't get Dai Jun into trouble. About an hour later, we pass by a café and I see another pink and white Hair volunteer Olympic jersey lounging at a table by the window with a companion. He must be one of the less diligent volunteers.
8-14-08 Temple of Heaven. For most of us tourists, the Temple of Heaven, built in 1420, is one of Beijing's must-sees. In my previous visits here though (and I'm really not sure how I could have been so unaware), I hadn't realized what a center of activity it is for retirees who live in the area. It's a hopping senior center. Women are dancing with long silk ribbons and performing rhythmic movements while balancing balls on what look like over-sized ping pong paddles. Men are playing classical Chinese instruments and Chinese chess. Some are out walking their birds in cages. A co-ed group is learning to play the accordion, and several other groups of three and four are kicking around colorful feathered shuttlecocks - and they're really good! An entire covered passageway is filled with men and women belting out some communist-sounding choruses, and when we walk back through two hours later, after rains have chased many tourists away, the group is still practicing. We talk a lot about vital aging in the U.S. these days, with the Baby Boomers retiring, or choosing not to retire. I tend not think of Chinese as being particularly progressive, with most people being forced to retire at 55, and then spending most of their days raising a grandchild while their children work. Dark colored clothing, short haircuts, simple lives is what comes to mind when I think of the elderly in China. The old were revered for their wisdom and life experiences. But after communism killed Confucianism in the 50s and 60s and, more recently, as China sought to modernize, the old were simply pushed aside or forgotten in all the progress. I see some change here though. These people are having so much fun.
8-15-08 In the apt and then at Starbucks. Unfortunately not much to report since I spent the entire day trying to send information to MPR. I sent my brother and cousin off to the Olympic Green with my artistic gymnastics tickets this morning. Turns out these weren't tickets to watch women dance around with ribbons. This was the women's individual gymnastics finals in which Nastia Luikin and Shawn Johnson on the U.S. team took gold and silver. My cousin and brother said the Olympic Green area was so large they couldn't walk around to see everything, and that lines to get into stores such as the Coca Cola Store (What would anyone want to buy there? A drink???!) were over an hour long. Rolex has a store, too. I really don't get it, but if we manage to get some more Olympics tickets, I guess I can see the craziness for myself.
I feel like I have received a much better feel for the atmosphere in Beijing right now from your blog so far than any of the coverage on the tv. Thanks for giving me a closer look!